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China declined to provide raw data on early cases of Covid-19, says a member of the WHO team

Reuters, CHINA

As early as next week, a review of the team's findings could be released, the WHO said on Friday. China declined to provide a World Health Organization-led team investigating the source of the pandemic with raw data on early Covid-19 cases, one of the team's investigators said, possibly complicating attempts to understand how the epidemic started. The team demanded raw patient data on the 174 cases of Covid-19 that China had reported from the early stage of the outbreak in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December 2019, as well as other cases, but only given a summary, said Dominic Dwyer, a team member expert in Australian infectious diseases.

These raw data, he said, was known as "line listings" and will usually be anonymized but include information such as what individual patients were asked, their answers, and how their responses were evaluated. "That's standard practice for an outbreak investigation," he told Reuters on Saturday via video call from Sydney, where he is currently undergoing quarantine. He said it was particularly necessary to gain access to the raw data because only half of the 174 cases were exposed to the Huanan market, the now-shuttered wholesale seafood center in Wuhan where the virus was initially identified. "That's why we've persisted to ask for that," he said. "Why that doesn't happen, I couldn't comment. Whether it's political or time or it's difficult ... But whether there are any other reasons why the data isn't available, I don't know. One would only speculate." Although a lot of material was provided by the Chinese authorities, he said the issue of access to raw patient data will be stated in the final report of the team. "The WHO people certainly felt that they had received much much more data than they had ever received in the previous year. So that in itself is an advance."

As early as next week, a review of the team's findings could be released, the WHO said on Friday. The WHO-led investigation was plagued by delay, concern about access, and bickering between Beijing and Washington, which accused China of concealing the severity of the initial outbreak and criticized the conditions of the visit in which the first phase of the study was carried out by Chinese experts.

The team, which arrived in China in January and spent four weeks researching the source of the Covid-19 outbreak, was restricted to visits arranged by their Chinese hosts and, because of health restrictions, was prohibited from contacting community members. The first two weeks were spent in quarantine at a hotel. The Wall Street Journal announced earlier on Friday that Hina had declined to hand over raw data on the early cases of Covid-19.

WHO did not respond to a request for comment from Reuters. The Chinese Foreign Ministry did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but Beijing has previously defended its openness and cooperation with the WHO mission in dealing with the outbreak.

Dwyer said the work within the WHO team was harmonious but that there were "arguments" at times with their Chinese counterparts over the interpretation and significance of the data, which he described as "natural" in such probes.

"We might be having a talk about the cold chain and they might be more firm about what the data shows than what we might have been, but that's natural. Whether there's political pressure to have different opinions, I don't know. There may well be, but it's hard to know."

The transport and trading of frozen food refers to the cold chain.

Beijing has attempted to cast doubt on the concept that the coronavirus originated in China, referring to a conduit to imported frozen food.

Peter Ben Embarek, head of the WHO delegation, told a news conference on Tuesday that transmission of the virus through frozen food is an option, but pointed to market vendors selling frozen animal products, including farmed wild animals, as a possible route for further research.

The team was not looking deeper into the theory that the virus escaped from a laboratory, Embarek also said, which is found highly unlikely. President Donald Trump's previous US administration had said it thought the virus may have escaped from a Wuhan lab, which Beijing strongly denies.

"It was a unanimous feeling," Dwyer said. "It wasn't a political sop whatsoever."

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